Peter Esila | The National aka The Loggers Times |
IT may cost up to K10 million to detoxify and clean up cyanide at the abandoned Sinivit mine in East New Britain (ENB), an official says.
Mineral Resources Authority (MRA) managing director Jerry Garry said the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (Cepa) and MRA officials visited the site last year and had completed monitoring by sampling to test for elevated cyanide content in the soil and water sources.
“There are interim plans to have security guards on site,” he said.
“Cepa advised that it may cost up to K10 million for external experts to detoxicate and clean up the cyanide.”
Last week, ENB Governor Nakikus Konga told Parliament that there were 18 vets, (an outdated way of storing mine wastes at the abandoned mine), which could be disastrous for the people, especially during the flash flood the province was experiencing.
Konga’s concerns were on the effect the mine wastes would have on his 45,000 people along the Warangoi River catchment area.
He said he had been discussing with Mining Minister Johnson Tuke for the last six months regarding the mine.
“He came to my province last weekend to see for himself what is happening with the abandoned Sinivit Gold mine, it will cause a catastrophe to my province.”
Meanwhile, Environment, Conservation and Climate Change Minister Wera Mori said he would be visiting the abandoned mine to assess the wastes.
“I will basically make a visitation to that province, hopefully together with MRA,” he said.
Beyond reasonable doubt, the element of environmental risk was present in both the exploration and development stages of the Wild Dog mine.
This mine was developed at the very summit of the highest peak in ENB with the presence of this significant environmental risk, and to the detriment of the livelihoods of the people at the foot of Mt Sinivit as well as within its vicinity and right down to the coast. What rational justification was used by the (relevant government agencies) and the landowners to agree for the mine to be developed given the geographical risk to the river systems?
Mineral deposits in the mining lease area comprised of the oxide and the sulphide zones both of which were not technically viable to be developed at such steep slopes with very high loss of height. Juxtaposed against these is a high mountain backdrop (with huge physical divides) that forms the catchment of the river systems on all sides. These areas contain critical ecosystems and life support systems. The mine heap-leach areas were pitched on narrow patches of no more than 20sq m, at most, in both zones, with no fenders, that were susceptible to climate extremes.
This mine was developed on “persistence in error” by the developer who refused to draw inference from negative signs and technicalities. The developer should have waylaid the “sunk-cost effect” in favour of the critical environment.
It is very disturbing that the (relevant government agencies) have been sitting on this environmental problem since the developer abandoned the mine during its operation.
The cyanide heap-leach method should never have been allowed to be used up there by the developer. The developer abandoned huge open pits, heaps, and the ponds of cyanide which are a risk to the whole environment. Some of these heaps and ponds have cracks caused by earthquakes.
The recent rains caused the cyanide vets to overflow into the drains that fed the sources of streams and creeks that tributed to the two large rivers of Nengmutka and Rapmarini which are major tributaries of Waragoi river.
Once the toxics leak, it can result in total collapse of ecosystems and life support systems that are being used by the people(I don’t want to mention the deadly strength of cyanide against the volume of water in the rivers) . This mine was at a critical location and dangerously and carelessly developed out of economic greed.
Five long years have lapsed after the developer left with evidently nothing done to date to contain the leakage risk. These relevant government agencies have just woken up from their slumber to sanction a disaster and environmental assessment to be carried out.
The funds being spent on rebuilding the road up to the mine to enable the assessment to be carried out could have been spent on other impassable roads in the Bainings).Is this how long bureaucratic red tape can last in our government system, even if it meant so many people dead from a cyanide disaster over five years?
This kind of irrational behaviour by govt agencies could prove fatal for the communal environment and costly to the lives of the people. The lack of action by government agencies has resulted in people(men, women, and children) risking their lives by going up there to the mine site(after the developer left) to take whatever is useful to them, thus having direct contact with cyanide and
other toxic chemicals.
Leach pad liners were even taken by people, posing serious risks to themselves! The government’s complacency and ignorance of problem risks and for taking no leakage deterrent measures conjures up the reality of its ignorance of the height of thresholds for pain of the people and the environment when inflicted for economic reasons other than for their own benefit and upkeep.
Government agencies must ensure economic development is balanced against the natural environment, not the other way around! This is an aspect of sustainable development!.
The problem at Wild Dog is not ISEP, rather, it is everybody’s. And I’d rather the so-called Sinivit Mine Landowners Association stops talking about mine reopening and look more closely at ensuring the sustainability of the sources that support the livelihoods of its members and make sure these sources are not compromised.
The Sinivit Mine Landowners Association is calling on the East New Britain provincial government to fund an independent audit into the operations of the abandoned Sinivit gold mine.
The developer, New Guinea Gold Limited abandoned the project in September 2014 after blaming the government and the Mineral Resources Authority for not quickly renewing their mining licence.
It is understood MRA had notified the company to return and rectify safety and environmental issues related to the Sinivit project but this has not eventuated.
Chairman Douglas Augustine said a submission was given to the provincial government in August last year requesting an independent audit to be conducted on the mine.
He said before any mining project can be re-opened, an audit must be done to establish how much was generated by the mining operations in the past and who benefited from those funds.
Mr Augustine said currently there is an environmental issue where some of the 29 abandoned vats used to extract gold and other minerals at the mine site were further damaged by heavy rain and flooding, with potential chemical contamination into nearby rivers of Warangoi and Nengmutka.
“Right now most of those vats near the cliff have collapsed and I appeal to communities near the two rivers not to use it too much as it is not safe,” he said.
Therefore he urged the provincial government and its administration to fast track an investigation or audit, so that any such issues are addressed before the mining project can be re-opened.
The landowners say they are not against the planned re-opening of the mine, but want an audit and report to be tabled first before the mine can be re-opened.
The office of the ENB Governor in response said the Minister for Mining will officially visit the mine soon to determine the next course of action.
Also the leaders are not utilizing the ILG’S set out by the National Government as per Land Amendment Act ( 2009 ) in negotiating development in the customary land.
We the people of the Uramat ILG are against the leaders idea of re opening the mine.
There should be compensation first the the landowners for all the chemical pollution.
As per the environmental report the treatment pond for cyanide and other chemicals used at the mine contained 20 parts per million of chemicals while the vats contain 20 parts per million as well. This is very high concentration and people’s life are at risk. The permitted safe environment content is 5 parts per million. This is a slap on the face for state agencies to neglect this issue as if there is no government for the people.
Yet leaders are pushing for the re opening of the mine without the consent of the indigenous customary and registered and gazetted land group. Let us solve the environmental issue but the mine won’t be re open
Coastal communities in East New Britain will be just as heavily impacted as any in New Ireland by the proposed Solwara 1 Experimental Seabed Mine, but the government is excluding the Province from any benefits sharing…
Coastal Area Benefit for offshore mining projects Cedric Patjole | PNG Loop | October 3, 2017
The Department of Mineral Policy and Geohazards Management has created the concept of Coastal Area Benefit as the benefit sharing agreement instrument for offshore mining projects.
Department of Mineral Policy and Geohazards Management Secretary, Harry Kore, says the concept was developed out of sentimental attachment locals have with the sea as a resource for their livelihood.
The CAB concept will be first implemented across several wards adjacent to the Solwara 1 Deep Sea Mine Project in New Ireland Province.
Secretary Kore said the CAB, as per its structure, is implemented with a ward that is directly opposite the offshore project.
However, the CAB can be extended to three more wards on both sides of the first ward, bringing in a maximum of seven wards as allowed under the Offshore Policy.
“The seven wards is the maximum, if there is only two or if there’s only one then those are the only wards that benefit. But if there is more than that is as far as we can go.”
The Coastal Area Benefit concept will be first introduced in seven wards along the West Coast of New Ireland Province.
They cover 22 villages and a population of over 8,000 people.
While the CAB for the New Irelanders is yet to be finalised, Secretary Kore says the concept aims to capture the locals’ attachment to the sea.
“Customarily we own the sea as well, but it’s communally owned by everybody in a particular area. And people have right of way to pass through your area for fishing or for customary activities out at sea, like shark callers.”
The offshore policy is one of the new policy developments contained in the revised Mining Act, which is yet to be endorsed by the National Executive Council.
Given that there will be minimal spin-off benefits to landowners as a result of the world’s first deep sea mine, the developer says it will heavily focus on its community service obligation.
The issue of benefits has been one of the main concerns of the leaders of both New Ireland and East New Britain who were in Port Moresby last week to witness the trials being conducted on the Nautilus Minerals Inc’s mining equipment .
For the ENB delegation the issue had been raised by Florence Paisparea who is the forest and environmental coordinator of the ENB provincial administration.
Nautilus Minerals Inc vice president for the Papua New Guinea operations, Adam Wright said unlike the traditional land-based mines, the foot print of the Solwara One project, would be quite small and likewise the benefits.
Mr Wright said employment would be limited as the firm will be employing about 200 people compared to Newcrest Lihir’s 3000.
He said other spin-off business would also be limited as its operations would be out at sea and there would not need services including buses, security and laundry services all associated with the land-based mines.
Mr Wright said it had already begun implementing this project especially in the coastal areas along the West Coast of New Ireland in the coastal areas of benefits (CAB) ahead of production.
Mr Wright told the leaders from ENB the firm would be delivering its first project-a community health post on Wotum Island by the year’s end.
He said apart from health, education, infrastructure development, and business development would be other focus areas.
“What we want to do is help generate businesses that will still be going once we are gone. We are looking at areas of cocoa and copra and trying to help people rehabilitate plantations and get those industries running.
Royalty was stated as another benefit, which Mr Wright said would be paid when the company begins production.
He said from discussions held, the intention is to have that distributed down to the local level government level.
Mr Wright said there is already a draft agreement, which once finalised would be signed off.
He added that this is the agreement that will address all these issues.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is a collaboration of organizations and citizens from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Canada concerned with the likely impacts of deep sea mining on marine and coastal ecosystems and communities.
Peter Neill – Director, World Ocean Observatory | Huffington Post | July 11, 2017
It has been some time since we’ve reflected on the issue of deep sea mining — the search for minerals of all types on the ocean floor. We have seen already how marine resources are being over-exploited — over-fishing by international fisheries being the most egregious example, mining for sand for construction projects and the creation of artificial islands, the exploitation of coral reefs and certain marine species for medical innovations and the next cure for human diseases based on understanding and synthesis of how such organisms function.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an organization based in Australia and Canada, has been following the saga of Solwara 1, proposed by Nautilus Inc. for offshore Papua New Guinea that continues to seek financing year after year since 2011. The project is basically a kind of corporate speculation premised on the lucrative idea of the availability of such minerals conceptually in the region — indeed the company has declined to conduct a preliminary economic study or environmental risk assessment, the shareholders essentially engaged in a long odds probability wager comparable to those who invested in marine salvagers attempts to find and excavate “pay-ships” lost at sea with purported vast cargos of silver and gold. The idea that they should be required to justify their endeavors to governments, third-world or otherwise, or to coastwise populations whose livelihood and lives depend on a healthy ocean from which they have harvested for centuries, is anathema.
Deep Sea Mining recently reported on the recent Nautilus Annual General Meeting where CEO Michael Johnston was asked:
· Is it true that without the normal economic and feasibility studies, the economic viability of Solwara 1 is unknown?
· Is it true that the risk to shareholders of losing their entire investment in Nautilus is high and the potential returns promoted by Nautilus are entirely speculative?
· Is this why Nautilus is struggling to obtain the investment to complete the construction of its vessel and equipment?
According to the release, Johnston declined to have his responses recorded and evaded providing clear answers. He did, however, affirm the description accuracy of the Solwara 1 project in the Annual Information Forms as a ‘high’ and ‘significant’ risk.
Local communities are also not interested in the Nautilus experiment. In recent weeks, two large forums against the Solwara 1 deep sea mining project in the Bismarck Sea have been held in New Ireland and East New Britain provinces of Papua New Guinea. Supported by the Catholic Bishops and Caritas Papua New Guinea , both forums called for the halt of the Solwara 1 project and a complete ban on seabed mining in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. Here are some comments from those meetings:
Patrick Kitaun, Caritas PNG Coordinator:
“The Bismarck Sea is not a Laboratory for the world to experiment with seabed mining. Our ocean is our life! We get all our basics from the ocean so we need to protect it. We will not allow experimental seabed mining in Papua New Guinea. It must be stopped and banned for good.”
Jonathan Mesulam of the Alliance of Solwara Warriors:
“Nautilus, we are not guinea pigs for your mining experiment! We in the Pacific are custodians of the world’s largest ocean. These oceans are important to us as sources of food and livelihoods. They are vital for our culture and our very identity. In New Ireland Province, we are only 25 km away from the Solwara 1 site. It is right in the middle of our traditional fishing grounds. We will stand up for our rights!”
Vicar General, Father Vincent Takin of the Diocese of Kavieng:
“In order, for any development to take place, the people must be the object of development and not subject to it. The people have not been fully informed about the impacts of Solwara 1 on the social, cultural, physical and spiritual aspects of their lives. Therefore they cannot give their consent.”
Nautilus Inc. does not appear to be major international energy company with the assets available to force this project forward as others might. The opposition is well organized and vocal with arguments and expectations that the company cannot overcome. We hope. As with offshore oil exploration alongshore and it the deep ocean, this project is isolated in an opposing political context and shifting market. It is not for this time, for these people in these places, who have no concern for the loss of the `stranded assets of invisible gamblers in the face of the gain of conserving and sustaining their ocean resources for local benefit and the future.
MRA allowed New Guinea Gold to abandon the Sinivit mine in 2014
MRA tells firm to clean up mine Elizabeth Vuvu | The National aka The Loggers Times THE Mineral Resources Authority has told a Canadian company to come and clean up the Sinivit mine in East New Britain it had abandoned. New Guinea Gold Limited abandoned the East New Britain gold project in September 2014 after blaming the Government and the authority “for not quickly renewing our mining lease”. MRA managing director Philip Samar told The National that they had notified the company to return and rectify safety and environment issues related to the Sinivit project. Samar said they had told New Guinea Gold Ltd that it was their responsibility to clean up their mess at the mine site. “Under the Mining Act, the company still has a mining lease that has not been cancelled,” he said. “Therefore, New Guinea Gold remains responsible to ensure all mining and environment regulations are complied with and safety measures are followed. “As the mining lease holder, it needs to be responsible and cannot shift the blame here and there.” He said the company responded by blaming the State and the Mineral Resources Authority for not acting quickly on its mining lease. “These unsubstantiated and misplaced claims by the tenement holder did not change New Guinea Gold’s social and regulatory obligations to fully maintain the mine. Samar said the company had not lodged any application with the MRA to have the mine placed in a “care and maintenance” phase. He said production had stopped but the site would continue to be managed safely and responsibly to ensure the mine’s security and stability. “There is a process to follow and you cannot just walk away after giving us a letter,” Samar said. “It is a legal requirement that a formal application is submitted. “Mines are not tuckerboxes and companies who operate them must ensure they have the sources to maintain these mines.” The Sinivit mine is currently under a renewal application for a new 10-year term. That application was with the Minister for Mining for a final determination in accordance with the Mining Act process and a National Court order issued in February 2014. There were reports that when the Sinivit mine was abandoned, locals looted and vandalised everything at the mine, including explosives and chemicals. Reports had surfaced of chemicals from the abandoned vats flowing into the Warangoi River. Meanwhile, provincial authorities had warned the people of Dadul, Riet and Uramot to stay clear of the mine site.
COMMUNITIES near the abandoned Sinivit gold mine in East New Britain are warned not to interfere with relics, ruins and rubbish left at the mine site following the departure of project developer New Guinea Gold Ltd. Provincial administrator and disaster committee chairman Wilson Matava said fiddling around with these leftovers could endanger the lives of people and their environment. “The mine has been closed since July 2014. Last year, locals reportedly looted and vandalised properties, including explosives and dangerous chemicals from the vats,” Matava said. Matava urged the people of Dadul, Riet and Uramot to stay clear of the mine site area. He said there were also reports of dangerous chemicals from the abandoned vats seeping into the Warangoi River. “The destruction of buildings and theft of materials, which act as barriers of the 17 vats used to extract gold and other minerals, have heightened the risks for locals and their environment.” Matava said the Mineral Resources Authority and Conservation and Environment Protection Authority had been working with the East New Britain administration to contain the potential contamination of the environment. “Attempts are being made to bring New Guinea Gold back to clean up its mess at the mine site.”
Rabaul, a township on the northern tip of Papua New Guinea’s New Britain island, is still covered in the ash of a volcano that exploded decades ago. Eruptions have twice decimated the city, once in 1937, and once in 1994. Both times, locals rebuilt and soldiered on. Today, if you’re driving across Rabaul, you’ll pass long stretches where ash is still piled on the shoulder and even on the middle of the road; it’s so thick you’ll want to close the windows to keep the dust from filling the car.
That volcano violently decimated the island’s then-major industry—tourism has yet to fully recover, over 20 years later—but it may yet become the bedrock of another one. The only issue is, that industry doesn’t actually exist yet. And some environmentalists, scientists and activists hope it never does.
Here in Papua New Guinea, one well-financed, first-mover company is about to pioneer deep sea mining. And that will mean dispatching a fleet of giant remote-operated robotic miners 5,000 feet below the surface to harvest the riches scattered across ocean floor. These mammoth underwater vehicles look like they’ve been hauled off the set of a sci-fi film—think Avatar meets The Abyss. And they’ll be dredging up copper, gold, and other valuable minerals, far beneath the gaze of human eyes.
It’s a little-watched but fast-approaching milestone that raises serious questions about the future of consumption in our rapidly modernizing, mineral-hungry world: How deep are we willing to dive to get the materials that make our electronics run?
The idea of razing the barely-studied deep sea floor has many nervous—from locals who worry about an accident, to scientists who fear we may be destroying an ecosystem we don’t yet understand. But as crucial materials like copper grow scarcer, might mining the deep, far away from human populations, be a reasonable endeavor? Or should the mere fact that we’re poised to roll over the ocean floor with robotic harvesters be cause enough to take pause and reassess the sustainability of our thirst for the metals that shape modern life?
Regardless, the first deep sea mine is slated to begin operations in just over two years, at a site called Solwara-1, leased from the Papua New Guinean government. It’s just off the coast of Rabaul, at the watery foot of that active volcano.
Eruption on the Rabaul caldera. Image: Wikimedia / Richard Bartz
Like, say, nuclear fusion, seafloor mining is a high-tech promise that has been attracting serious investment, winning sporadic headlines, and lingering on the cusp of becoming a reality for about half a century. But in 2018, a Canadian company called Nautilus claims it will begin to do what no one else has been able to: Actually mine the deep.
“Seafloor mining is a major game changer in the global mining industry,” Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston told me. “There are an enormous number of high grade deposits on the seafloor. Seafloor massive sulphide systems, such as at Solwara-1, exist all over the world along hydrothermal vents which are extremely rich in minerals such as copper, gold, silver and zinc.”
Johnston is hinting at nothing short of a deep sea gold rush, and he’s far from the first. In fact, the original spree commenced almost exactly half a century ago. The quest to mine the ocean floor began in earnest in 1965, when John L. Mero, a shipyard consultant formerly with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Marine Resources, published Mineral Resources of the Sea. In that volume, Mero wrote that “the sea is a major storehouse for the minerals that serve as the foundations of an industrial society” and claimed riches like nickel, cobalt, and copper lay on the bottom of the ocean in manganese nodules—metal-rich clumps—awaiting extraction in near-limitless supply.
Mero proposed dropping a “deep-sea hydraulic dredge” down to depths of 10,000 feet, which would essentially act as “a giant vacuum cleaner designed to gather a thin surficial layer of material.”
Following the publication of Mineral Resources, nations including the United States, France, and Germany set out to explore the deep in search of these clusters of oceanic riches. Over the subsequent decades, nations sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into deep ocean mining, to little avail. A 2000 study published in Sciencefound that a total of $650 million had been invested in the enterprise, much of it before metal prices collapsed during the recession caused by the 1973 oil crisis, and before deep sea scientists realized that Mero’s projections of abundant riches were hopelessly optimistic. For decades, deep sea mining was mostly abandoned, and the dream of scooping riches out of the ocean depths lay idle.
In recent years, however, two trends have converged to help renew interest in the concept: Growing global demand for the recoverable metals, especially copper, has upped the profit potential for deep sea mining. Copper is crucial to modern life; it’s both malleable and a great conductor, so it’s found in consumer electronics, cables, cars, refrigerators and beyond—and its value is exploding as major economies like China and India industrialize. The undersea regions that would play host to the mines bear loads of other minerals essential to modernity, too, including nickel, silver, gold and cobalt.
Meanwhile, new technologies—like remote-operated underwater mining robots—have placed seafloor mining within reach. “Once I got the chance to start looking at the technology back in 2004,” Johnston told me, “it became clear to me that there had been rapid changes, so big that what seemed almost impossible back in the 1970s was now actually pretty simple from an engineering point of view.”
Finally, a better understanding of deep sea geology has spurred new-wave prospectors to shift their focus from the manganese nodules of yore to another target: Sulfide deposits that form near hydrothermal vents.
Nautilus is just one of the outfits hoping to take advantage of the trends pushing deep sea mining closer to reality—both Japan and Korea are exploring the idea and developing tech to mine in their waters, and another private company, Neptune, has staked out some major leases to do the same in the Pacific.
Seafloor massive sulfides. Image: University of Washington
However, as the idea has grown closer to fruition, it’s also attracted its fair share of worry. In 2007, the major journal Sciencepublished an article called the “Danger of Deep Sea Mining,” which voiced concerns that the huge, swirling sediment plumes stirred up by underwater mining could disturb habitats, and that the process could have a toxic effect on the water column. It concluded that “Plans for deep-sea mining could pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems.” Meanwhile, one of the most alien and intriguing ecosystems on earth is also a key fixture of the mining operations: Hydrothermal vents.
These hydrothermal vents are found in on seabeds near active volcanoes, like the one that forms the atoll around Solwara-1, and the one that Rabaul sits atop. Some scientists have posited that life itself may have originated near their exhaust, where heated, mineral-rich seawater blasts out of the oceans crust into the stark, cold waters of the deep. But here’s why miners are so interested in them: They are constantly, if very slowly, creating what geologists call seafloor massive sulfides.
“These deposits form at or near the seafloor where circulating hydrothermal fluids driven by magmatic heat are quenched through mixing with bottom waters or pore-waters in near-seafloor lithologies,” the US Geological Survey explains. The deposits occur in broad, flat, lens-like bodies that lay parallel to the volcanic bedding. “Massive sulfide lenses vary widely in shape and size and may be podlike or sheetlike,” the USGS notes.
These deposits are often rich in valuable minerals like copper and gold, and happen to be easier to find, too. Nautilus plans to harvest the spots where these materials accumulate—while avoiding the vents themselves—to bring the minerals to the surface en masse, and, of course, sell them for profit.
“The seafloor massive sulfides are copper-rich, and they have higher copper content than what remains on land in known reserves, so they’re attractive in that sense,” Cindy van Dover tells me. Van Dover is a deep sea scientist with Duke University, and has served as a science advisor for Nautilus—she is not a paid consultant.
Van Dover was recently invited down to Papua New Guinea by TED, the “ideas worth spreading” nonprofit, which had organized a seafaring expedition to tackle ocean issues. She was asked to give a talk about deep sea mining aboard the National Geographic Orion, as it cruised over the tropical waters soon to be worked by Nautilus.
The consummate scientist, Van Dover is methodical and cautious in her thinking about the subject. She’s soft-spoken but easy to smile, has graying, close-cropped hair, and, over the course of our talks aboard the boat, she exuded a quiet ambivalence over the mining question. Which makes sense, because she’s spent her entire three-decade career studying the deep sea ecosystems it threatens to transform.
Hydrothermal vents. Image: NOAA
“I started studying these hydrothermal vents in 1982,” she told me, while the boat’s gently rocking deck churned my stomach. “They were discovered in 1979. So yeah, hearing someone was going to rip them up? Cut them up and destroy them?” she added, shaking her head. Of course she was concerned. “There are animals living at these active hot springs,” she says. “So, we’re really interested in seeing what the impact on those communities will be.” Life that gathers around hydrothermal vents is often surprisingly vibrant; it can include tube worms, sea snails, blind shrimp, and deepwater fish.
Out the window of our cabin on the Orion, pillars of smoke rise in the distance, a product of the region’s slash-and-burn agriculture practices—a constant reminder that Papua New Guinea is poor, and that mineral royalties could go a long way.
Van Dover takes pains to note that Nautilus isn’t about to swiftly and surreptitiously mine an out-of-the-way environment under the cover of darkness. Quite the opposite, she says. The company came to her and asked for her expertise, and has since been unusually transparent and proactive.
“They would ask very direct questions: So what are you concerned about?” she said. “If we take this one site away [ie, destroy Solwara-1], won’t [life] come back?” And that is exactly what Van Dover is concerned about: The ecosystems poised for destruction. Here’s another interesting thing about those habitats, and the animals that live in them—they get destroyed, fairly routinely, already.
“The sites are overrun by volcanic eruptions, at intervals,” van Dover explains. “I think about the East Pacific Rise, [another basin] where the eruptions happen every decade or so, and the animals really are adapted, and within months the animals are coming back in. In a couple years, you can’t even tell there was an eruption.”
Unlike East Pacific Rise, however, Solwara-1 is a longer-lived site, meaning volcanic flows come much less often, and don’t destroy the habitats on the seafloor as regularly. These are the creatures that risk getting wiped out by Nautilus, too. At Solwara-1, some scientists worry that the animals might not have time to recover. Other scientists point out that this complex ecosystem is simply still poorly understood—we might have little idea what to expect if they’re mined.
Nautilus, meanwhile, says that it would proceed responsibly, and emphasizes the serious economic case for mining.
“Solwara-1, for example, has 7 percent copper and 6 grams to metric tons of gold on average—more than 10 times higher than average grades on land. There is more copper on the seafloor than all known reserves on land,” Nautilus CEO Johnston says. (On land, the average grade of copper ore is below 0.6 percent, and gold yields fell to 1.2 grams to tons of gold in 2014.) “One of the primary determinants in a mine’s profitability is the grade of the resource, and so when you have seafloor grades that are 10 times higher than what’s found terrestrially, that is a major advantage for seafloor mining.”
Furthermore, aside from the fact that the targeted mining grounds lay 5,000 feet below sea level, there are parts of deep sea mining that are actually easier than on-land mining. Hold tight: We’re going to get wonky with some mining jargon for a second.
“The seafloor massive sulfides that Nautilus is interested in are sit proud on the seafloor so they have no soil or sediment overburden—the overburden is water,” van Dover says. Overburden is the layer of rock or soil overlying a mineral deposit, and “sit proud” means, in mining speak, to “sit on top of.” That means there’s no obtrusive layer of land to peel away before you can start collecting your valuables; they’re sitting right there on the surface, ripe for the picking.
Of course, that surface is the ocean floor, thousands of feet below sea level, which means Nautilus will need an elaborate, high-tech system to efficiently extract its prizes. And here’s where things start to get sci-fi.
“The mining itself involves using a surface ship from which remotely operated vehicles are lowered down onto the seafloor, and the material is ground up, and the ore is brought up to the surface, dewatered, and the dewatering fluid, the seawater, is put back down on the seafloor,” Van Dover says. “When the ship’s done mining one place it will move to the next place,” she says, “so there’s no roads, no infrastructure. So there are some good arguments for why, in a relative sense, that the environmental impact is less than what you’d see on land.”
How deep sea mining works, video [except Nautilus left out the bit where they pump the unwanted waste back into the ocean!]
According to its public blueprints, the Nautilus plan involves three separate robotic, remotely-operated vehicles working in tandem to prepare, mine, and collect the minerals from the deep. Each is about 50 feet long, 15 feet wide, and way [sic] up to 340 tons. Built by the English remote vehicle manufacturer SMD, with US heavy machinery maker Caterpillar, together, the fleet is worth $100 million. Each of them will be deployed from a giant ship, the Production Support Vessel, that will float above the mining operation like an oil rig.
First, a robot called the Bulk Cutter will be dispatched to prepare the way. It will be dropped to the Solwara. It will then use its boom-mounted cutting head to dig “benches” in the sea floor for the next wave of robots to work upon. Second comes the Auxilary Cutter, which is larger, and capable of higher cutting capacity, but can only work in the trenches carved by the AC. The rock will be disaggregated on the seafloor by the continuous cutting of both massive machines, Nautilus explains on the company website, vehicles it says are “not unlike coal or other bulk continuous mining machines on land.”
After the material has been extracted, the Collecting Machine is sent in. That machine “will collect the cut material by drawing it in as seawater slurry with internal pumps and push it through a flexible pipe to the riser and lifting system,” which will in turn pump that slurry to the surface. Onboard, the slurry is dewatered and the desirable solids are stored in the hull, where they await transport from yet another vessel.
Each of these robots can be remotely operated from above the surface, and are built to withstand the immense pressure of the deep. But as Nautilus notes, they’re mostly adapted variations of extraction tech currently used on land to clear land away for coal and ore. Just underwater—deep, deep underwater—and with robots.
All told, it’s a complex, high-tech, and high-risk undertaking. The process is carried out in an extreme environment, and if those robots break down, repairs will be costly, as sending down a submersible to such depths would no doubt pose a challenge. And an accident, in such a high-stakes situation, stands not just to pollute the local environment.
As such, Nautilus has made a lot of people nervous.
Local protests against the mine have been rising up in Rabaul, led by concerned New Guineans, van Dover tells me. As we’re driving through the city’s ash-pocked roads in a bus, she asks a local tour guide if she’s seen the protests.
“Oh yes,” the woman mumbles, and looks out the window. A bit later, she told me that many of the locals “are unhappy” but didn’t want to elaborate; she seemed nervous about casting Rabaul in a negative light. Tourism collapsed here following the eruption, and it appeared that foreigners were still a relatively uncommon sight on the island. Wherever we drove, people would smile, wave, even sometimes call out at the sight of us.
Though Nautilus has yet to attract the international-scale attention of other trailblazing extraction projects, it’s already plenty divisive. Locals may be concerned about foreign operations entering PNG waters and the threat to its environment, but environmentalists worldwide are beginning to organize around the issue, too. Protests against the Solwara-1 have already been amplified by a nascent global movement seeking to halt deepwater mining outright.
One opponent of the project is Richard Steiner, a marine conservation biologist who formerly taught with the University of Alaska. Steiner has studied marine disasters ever since the Exxon Valdez unfolded in his backyard. I first met him years ago: He was one of the first experts to arrive on the scene of the BP spill in 2010, where he helped monitor and analyze the fallout of the disaster.
Today he spearheads a nonprofit called Oasis Earth, and lends his expertise to various conservation efforts. The Deep Sea Mining Campaign, which he supports, was organized to slow the drive towards mining the deep, and, in particular, its highest-profile poster project.
“The idea of destroying the biological communities at the Solwara-1 hydrothermal vent system is contrary to everything marine conservation stands for,” Steiner tells me in an email. “Mining will destroy a deep sea biological community that isn’t even well understood scientifically, and will likely cause extinctions of species that have yet to be identified.”
“That alone is an ethical line we cannot condone,” he adds. “It will cause severe and long lasting impacts to this vent field, and for minerals we simply don’t need (particularly gold). This project is a spectacularly bad idea.”
The full impact the project will have on the deep sea environment is difficult to discern. Nautilus commissioned a US environmental consulting nonprofit, Earth Economics, to carry out an environmental assessment of Solwara, which cast it in relatively favorable light. But Steiner and other critics have called its subsequent report misleading, and charged that it fails to take into account myriad ecosystem services and marine life vulnerabilities.
Nautilus, of course, insists that its plans are not only safe, but even safer than the alternative. On-land mines are major polluters; leaching and runoff can contaminate watersheds and soil, create sinkholes, and encourage logging and development. They can endanger the health of those living nearby. With deep water mining, that’s less of a problem.
Auxiliary cutter. Image: Nautilus
“There’s no society—there’s no civilization, no human beings living on the seafloor, obviously,” van Dover says. “So that makes it a little bit simpler in terms of the societal impacts, unlike on land, where people are involved.”
Still, conservationists argue there are other ways to obtain copper without succumbing to the deep.
“Deep sea mining proponents seldom mention the vast resources still available on land, or the need to dramatically increase the efficiency of metal use in the global economy, cradle-to-cradle design, and landfill mining,” Steiner tells me. “We have to break the ‘economy of waste’—mining raw minerals, using them once or twice, discarding them, thus creating more demand for mining.”
The biggest question, of course, isn’t just the dangers of Solwara-1. It’s whether this project may kickstart a wider industry, in places not as thoroughly vetted. “Korea and Japan are both active, a company called Neptune is also an active player right now,” van Dover says.
Indeed, in recent years, Korea has successfully tested a deep sea mining robot, and Japan has approved leasing rights in its waters for seafloor mineral exploration. A lot of eyes will be on Nautilus.
Meanwhile, construction on its hulking Production Support Vessel, the ship that will serve as the above-sea command center, has begun on schedule. In October 2015, Nautilus CEO Johnston celebrated the milestone by saying that “Our objective remains to develop the world’s first commercial high grade seafloor copper-gold project and launch the deep water seafloor resource production industry,” he said. “With the eyes of the world waiting to see the dawn of this new industry, we look forward to taking delivery of the vessel in December 2017 to enable us to commence our seafloor operations in Q1 2018.” He reaffirmed the same to me.
“The seafloor production tools and the riser and lifting system, including the subsea lift pump, are complete or are nearing completion,” Johnston told me. “The auxiliary cutter, bulk cutter and collecting machine are complete and have undergone factory acceptance testing with wet testing to commence in the first half of 2016.”
Nautilus released images of the finished machines recently, and earned a small but muted round of press, which shared the photos of the impressive-looking deep sea rovers.
“The final component of the seafloor production system is the vessel, which represents the critical path to production. Steel cutting for the vessel has begun and we are confident of its delivery at the end of 2017,” he said. The rest of the onboard equipment is complete, too, he added.
So the robotic drills are set to drop. Even if Nautilus has taken every conceivable step to promote good practices within its operation, to understand the ecosystem it will be exploiting, and to communicate with concerned parties, questions remain. It may seem a utopian demand for Steiner and his peers to ask that we attempt to live sustainably with the minerals currently in circulation instead of drawing them out of the sea, but we’re also on the precipice of a bold precedent. Few will likely advocate for the deep once the mining begins.
“I really do think we need to understand what we might lose,” van Dover says. “The cumulative impacts are what’s really hard. Solwara-1, yes, go ahead and mine S-1, and let’s see what happens. But what about the next one? What’s the tipping point? How many of these sites could you destroy? And at what tempo, before it doesn’t come back? I think S-1 would come back if nothing else is touched. If you touch something else in that basin, how much is too much? Two? I don’t know.”
Van Dover glances out the window of our cabin.
“Can it be environmentally sustainable? Yes. But will it be? I’m not so optimistic.”